This opinion will be unpublished and
may not be cited except as provided by
Minn. Stat. § 480A.08, subd. 3 (1998).
IN COURT OF APPEALS
Lansing Enterprises, Inc.,
Lee Lansing, et al.,
Hardware Wholesalers, Inc.,
Goodhue County District Court
File No. CX981391
Dean A. LeDoux, Gray, Plant, Mooty, Mooty & Bennett, P.A., 3400 Multifoods Tower, 33 South Sixth Street, Minneapolis, MN 55402 (for respondent Our Own Hardware Company and respondent Hardware Wholesalers, Inc.)
Jonathan C. Miesen, Lindquist & Vennum, P.L.L.P., 4200 IDS Center, 80 South Eighth Street, Minneapolis, MN 55402-2205 (for appellant)
Considered and decided by Willis, Presiding Judge, Crippen, Judge, and Holtan, Judge.*
Appellant contends that the jury’s special-verdict findings are palpably contrary to the law and the evidence. Because the trial court correctly analyzed the evidence received at trial, we affirm its denial of appellant’s motion for a new trial.
In June 1998, respondent Our Own Hardware sued appellant Lansing for amounts due on its account established to furnish inventory. Appellant counterclaimed against respondent and its successor Hardware Wholesalers, Inc., that respondent suppliers made defamatory statements about the amount of debt and tortiously interfered with appellant’s potential relationships with other suppliers. The jury awarded respondent $130,668.67 on the account claim. The jury also found that respondents made defamatory statements to potential suppliers but awarded no damages on the defamation claim. Likewise, although the jury found that respondents improperly interfered with appellant’s contractual relationships, it found that the conduct did not result in an actual breach of contract or loss of any business relationships.
The decision to grant a new trial lies within the sound discretion of the trial court and will not be disturbed absent a clear abuse of that discretion. Halla Nursery, Inc. v. Baumann-Furrie & Co., 454 N.W.2d 905, 910 (Minn. 1990). Answers to special verdict questions are not to be set aside unless they are perverse and palpably contrary to the evidence, or unless the evidence is so clear that reasonable minds could not differ. Hauenstein v. Loctite Corp., 347 N.W.2d 272, 275 (Minn. 1984).
Because the jury found that respondents made defamatory statements, appellant contends that the finding and award of no damages, at least presumed damages, is inconsistent and palpably contrary to the evidence. In examining the record, the trial court correctly found that appellant did not dispute the verdict form or the court’s jury instructions. The instructions merely described defamatory statements as harmful communications. Although the court instructed the jury that truth is a complete defense to defamation, the verdict form did not ask the jury to decide if the defamatory statements were true. There is no error in the trial court’s analysis that the jury could have found the defamatory statements to be true, providing a complete defense to the claim.
Appellant argues that the jury made a falsity finding when it responded to the interrogatory on appellant’s tortious-interference claim because the jury found “improper” interference. The record defeats appellant’s contention because the jury was not instructed that interference was improper only if false.
Finally, appellant argues that the evidence did not permit a finding of truth or the trial court’s substantial truth rationale, because respondents represented an outstanding debt of $300,000 and the jury in fact found a $130,000 debt. But as the trial court observed, appellant told the jury that the $300,000 representation caused the harm, without suggesting that harm would not have occurred if respondents represented the debt as less than this amount. And appellant presented no evidence that an accurately reported debt of $130,000 would have been harmless. Specifically examining the record as to representations made to two suppliers, the trial court correctly found in each instance that appellant offered no evidence to show that the suppliers would have changed their decisions “had the past due debt simply been less than reported by Plaintiff, yet still substantial.”
2. Tortious Interference
Appellant contends that, given the finding of improper interference, the jury could not have found that the wrongdoing did not result in a loss of business relationships or damages. But the trial court correctly analyzed the evidence in finding, as to either cause of action, that appellant did not prove causation. As already noted, the court found that appellant tried his case on a theory that he owed nothing and presented no testimony to show what credit-extension decisions would have been made if respondents had reported a debt of $130,000, as the jury found.
Attempting to refute the trial court’s analysis on causation, appellant states four contentions. First, appellant argues that as a matter of good sense, the correctly reported debt “obviously would not have caused the same level of concern” and that $300,000 is such a dramatic overstatement that anyone would conclude that no harm would have occurred if a $130,000 debt had been reported. But we are to view the evidence in the light most favorable to the jury verdict, and the jury was under no obligation to infer that the suppliers would not be concerned about a $130,000 debt.
Second, appellant suggests that the correctly reported debt would have been $22,000, not $130,000, based on the $108,300 offset the jury determined respondents owed from its agreement to repurchase stock and repay promissory notes in connection with appellant’s initial membership agreement and dividend payments. Appellant contends that such a small obligation provides an even greater reason to insist on a finding that improper representations caused harm. It is undisputed that the offsetting obligation exists, but it is equally evident that appellant alleged respondents wrongfully misrepresented the accounts receivable, not that they had an obligation to inform potential suppliers of offsetting obligations.
Third, evidence showed that respondents characterized the debt as amounts due for current purchases. Appellant contends that if respondents had allocated the payments correctly the debt would consist only of long-standing obligations, which would not have concerned the suppliers. Looking at the evidence in the light most favorable to the verdict, the size of appellant’s debt and not its makeup was the subject of concern.
Finally, appellant suggests that its case must succeed because respondents failed to prove that the suppliers still would have slashed their benefits or refused to do business with appellant if respondents had correctly reported the debt as $130,000. But this argument rests on reversing the burden of proof; it is appellant’s burden to prove damages.
The trial court properly reconciled the answers to the special verdict questions and did not abuse its discretion in refusing to grant a new trial.
* Retired judge of the district court, serving as judge of the Minnesota Court of Appeals by appointment pursuant to Minn. Const. art. VI, § 10.